Two short video talks on world religions: What are world religions, and how might we explore them?
I’ll put the full text of both talks below the fold.
Intro. to world religions
I’m going to start this conversation about world religions by saying — first of all — that there’s no such thing as world religions. I’ll explain that in a moment. But I’m also going to start by saying that “world religions” remains a useful tool in looking at the phenomenon of religion.
Where does the term”world religions” come from?
So what do I mean when I say that there’s no such thing as world religions? What I really mean is that the term “world religions” is actually a term used by European Christians, originally mostly Protestant Christians, as a polite term to help designate non-Christian parts of the worlds which were ripe for being taken over by European powers. In other words, it’s a polite term for peoples who were not a part of Christendom.
As you can see, this implies that Western Christianities — both Protestantism, and Roman Catholicism — are in some sense racial, ethnic, tribal religions. This is an old notion, and there were a number of Black religious movements in the United States beginning as early as the nineteenth century that pointed out this uncomfortable fact. Both Black Islamic and Black Jewish movements within the United States in the twentieth century were pointed in their critiques of Christianity as being a white person’s religion. Christianity, in this view, was a tool used by European and American political powers to justify the trans-Atlantic slave trade; the Christian god was a white god that came out of the white culture of a white political entity, the ancient Roman Empire.
Ideology and “world religions”
When you listen to leaders of Black Islamic and Black Jewish movements in the U.S. in the twentieth century, an important point emerges. Sylvester A. Johnson, professor of African American studies and religious studies at Northwestern University puts it this way:
“An important parallel exists between [these leaders’] rendering of Christianity as a specific ethnic and racial religion (Christianity stands here as the ethnic religion of a specific people — Europeans) and the taxonomic knowledge produced by querying the nature of religion as a genus by comparing the varieties of the world’s religions. This humanistic strategy of mapping religion resulted from European colonialism and was induced by the myriad colonial contacts that compelled Enlightenment thinkers to view differently what was previously regarded as Christian [truth] / religious truth.”
In other words, what Johnson is saying is that colonial conquests brought Europeans into contact with other cultures, and as a result the Europeans had to rethink their world view: there were other possibilities out there besides Christianity. That’s actually a good thing to have happen: that they were willing to study world religions shows that European scholars were willing to open themselves to new possibilities. However, there were problems with the way these Europeans studied world religions. Here’s Sylvester Johnson again:
“This transformation among Western (typically Christian) intellectuals did not necessarily dethrone Christian supremacism — the colonial comparison of religions frequently functioned to reinscribe European Christian supremacy in secular and religious terms.”
And indeed, the study of world religions often assumed implicitly that Western Christianity was the epitome of religion, against which all other religions must be judged. We are still saddled with that legacy. For example, it’s very common for North Americans and Europeans to ask of other religions, “What do they believe?” What do Buddhists believe? What do Navajos believe? What do Confucianists believe? But for many religious traditions, belief is not a central concern; and when we assume that belief is central to all religions, we are engaging in Christian supremacism, by assuming that all other religions should conform to Christian norms.
Now, you might say that you are not a Christian, that you are a secularist. Well, secularism can actually function as a religion. Back in 2016, Donovan Schaefer made this point in a podcast from the Religious Studies Project, a group of scholars based in Scotland. In this podcast, titled “Is Secularism a World Religion?” Schaefer argued that, yes indeed, secularism is in fact a world religion. In an example, Schaefer asks us to think about teaching college students:
“…If we’re talking about teaching students in a Western/Anglo/Euro/American context, we’re going to be teaching students who are going to be coming from a variety of faith positions some of whom will be coming from a non-faith position and probably see their status as neutral. They probably see the religions they’re looking at as in a sense, under glass, as something that is disconnected from where they are. And I think it’s important for those students to recognise that even the liberal Secular idiom that they might see themselves located within, has a history. That it, even it, the agenda of that is set by a particular set of Christian coordinates. Saba Mahmood has done some really excellent work on this, talking about the way that these sort of ostensibly secular legal codes throughout Europe actually privilege a kind of ghost of Christianity, that they are marshalled in the service of defending a sort of Christian heritage and they suppress other ways of being religious.”
How we might proceed from here
So what can we take away from all this?
First of all, when you’re looking at religion, there is no “view from nowhere”; everyone has a religious point of view, even secularists — actually, I’d say especially secularists, since they may have an explicit goal of suppressing other religions, so their bias is really clear.
Second of all, the whole study of world religions arose from European colonialism. And the study of world religions assumes that white European Christianity is normative. So we have to be aware that there’s this kind of built-in bias in the study of world religions.
Third of all, we need to be aware of how a Christian — or a post-Christian Secularist — perspective affects the way we study world religions. Christians and post-Christian Secularists assume that belief is paramount and they tend to ignore other aspects of religion. Christians and post-Christian Secularists tend to assume a certain sort of social organization, such as congregations and denominations and so forth. Christians and post-Christian Secularists tend to assume that an individual can have only one religious commitment; you’re either a Roman Catholic or a Unitarian Universalist, but you can’t be both; you’re either a Christian or Buddhist but not both; you’re either a Secularist or you’re religious, but not both. The list goes on.
Fourth, as we explore these various biases, we begin to realize that maybe the very category of religion assumes Western Christian supremacy. And therefore maybe even white supremacy.
In short, there are a whole lot of biases built in to the very concept of world religions. And we can respond to that in a number of ways. At one extreme, we can throw out the entire study of world religions as fatally biassed. At another extreme, we can double down and defend the study of world religion.
But in my teaching — and remember, I mostly teach religion to middle schoolers — I think there’s a more flexible approach that acknowledges the inherent biases in studying world religions, yet within the study of world religions still finds much that is fascinating and worthy of our attention.
So in my next lecture, I’ll look at a couple of ways you can explore world religions.
Two tools for exploring world religions
How can we explore world religions, without sinking too deeply into Christian supremacist biases? — or without sinking into Secularist supremacist biases?
I’m going to outline two tools for exploration. Both these tools do some thing well, but as is true of all tools they do not do everything well. As it true of all tools, if you use these tools wisely and well, for the purposes for which they were designed, you should get some good results — just be sure you always wear your safety glasses and other protective equipment.
First tool: 7 dimensions of religion
The first tool comes from a book by Ninian Smart titled “Dimensions of the Sacred: An Anatomy of the World’s Beliefs.” I don’t know about you, but the subtitle makes me immediately wary; Smart seems to equate “religions” with “beliefs.” Therefore, we are aware that Smart has a definite point of view; specifically, he is quite definitely in the Euro-American tradition of scholarship. This doesn’t mean that we should dismiss Ninian Smart’s book; rather, this means that we can be pretty sure that we know what his point of view is. Since we’re assuming that there is no “view from nowhere,” we definitely want to know what his point of view is.
And in fact, Ninian Smart’s point of view is pretty close to my own. I’m a product of Euro-American white culture. As a Unitarian Universalist, I would characterize myself as based in a post-Christian religion; and while it’s important to me that Unitarian Universalism is POST-Christian, it’s also undeniable that it is post-CHRISTIAN. Then too, in the introduction to his book, Smart talks about wanting to serve as a “counterpoise to cultural tribalism.” In light of the destructive cultural tribalism that exists in U.S. politics, I most definitely want to serve as a counterpoise to cultural tribalism. Smart also talks about wanting to raise “fruitful questions for contemplations by religions and more generally [by] worldviews.” And indeed, that’s a goal of mine, too: one reason to explore other religions is to help oneself better understand one’s own religion.
Smart suggests that we can explore seven different dimensions of religion. In the Euro-American tradition, we tend to focus on belief and doctrine, and that is in fact the first dimension of religion that Smart looks at. But Smart goes on to describe six other, equally interesting, dimensions of religion.
Second dimension: the ritual dimension: What are the rituals that are characteristic of a particular religious tradition? Protestant Christians in Europe and North America gather each week on Sunday morning to sit quietly in groups and listen to someone speaking on the subject of doctrine; Protestant Christians engage in other rituals as well, but this is the most frequent and most common one.
Third dimension: the mythic or narrative dimension: What are the stories that a religion tells? Hindus are likely to be more or less familiar with the Mahabharata, the epic story of the battle between the Kauravas and the Pandavas.
Fourth dimension: the experiential and emotional dimension: What are the experiences and feelings that people experience who are a part of this religious tradition? When Sikhs come together to worship, one of the central things they experience is singing together hymns that were composed by Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism; and the experience of singing those ancient hymns has associated with it feelings and emotions.
Fifth dimension: the ethical and legal dimension: What are the rules for conduct which are part of this religion? My friend the Reform rabbi follows a number of religious rules, including keeping kosher, observing rules pertaining to the sabbath, and so forth.
Sixth dimension: the social dimension: What are the social networks that characterize this religion? One of the social structures that characterizes Tibetan Buddhism is the lineage that any given religious leader has, a lineage that may stretch back many years into the past. On a broader scale, around the Mediterranean Sea during the medieval period, two great social groupings, Christendom and the Islamic caliphates, came into contact.
Seventh dimension: the material dimension: What parts of the physical world relate to a religion? This can include buildings used for worship, works of art, special clothing that is worn, , burial grounds, books, and so on. Secularism in the United States has a rich material culture, including the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., Mount Rushmore, and the painting of Washington crossing the Delaware River.
To review, the seven dimensions are (1) belief and doctrine; (2) ritual; (3) myth and narrative; (4) experience and emotion; (5) ethics and laws; (6) social aspects; and (7) material culture.
I find Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion an especially useful tool in the classroom. When I teach world religions to middle schoolers, they tend to focus on belief — because Western culture tells them over and over again that religion is all about belief, is ONLY about belief. So I focus the middle schoolers’ attention on experience and emotion; on social structures; and on material culture. Thus, I can move them out of the dominant — and incorrect — assumption that religion is all about belief. Furthermore, I can help them become more sensitive to how other cultures, other worldviews, are different from their own, operating under different sets of assumptions.
Second tool: finding your neighbors
That’s the first tool I’m going to outline for exploring world religions. The second tool is equally fun, but simpler to use.
Back in the 1990s, Diana Eck, a professor at Harvard who studied religions of India, discovered that some of the religions that she was flying to India to study existed just a short drive from her office at Harvard. She began to mobilize her students to seek out and document all the different religious groups in the Boston area. She and her students soon discovered that an astonishing number of the major world religions were represented in the Boston area: Afro-Caribbean religions, Baha’i, Buddhism, Confucianism, Daoism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Zoroastrianism, and so on.
So one way to explore religion is simply to look for religious communities near where you live. I did this again in my old neighborhood in San Mateo, and with a twenty minute walk I found several Christian churches, a Hindu temple, a Buddhist temple, an Islamic masjid, and a Jewish synagogue.
This may seem to be a very superficial way to explore religion, since all you’re doing is locating where a religious group meets. But I found it stretched my understanding of who my neighbors were, and I began to better understand the diversity of where I live — not just racial and economic diversity, but diversity of culture and of worldview.
I also found that I couldn’t just do a Web search for nearby religions — some of these religious groups have Web sites in a language other than English, and some of them prefer to remain under the radar. The only way I found some of these groups was to drive around looking for them — or better yet, though more time consuming, get out and walk, because some of them are easy to miss from a car.
The next step: visit your neighbors
The next step, of course, is to actually go and visit some of these neighboring religions. Occasionally, that’s what Diana Eck and her students did. And that’s also what we do with our middle schoolers: we pay visits to our neighboring religions. A direct experience of other religions further breaks us out of the complacency that comes with merely studying religious beliefs, because it quickly becomes obvious that there’s much more to religion than belief. A direct experience of other religions also makes us better world citizens, as we learn how to make such visits politely.
A direct experience of other religions can also help us to learn more about who we are as religious persons, if we remain humble and don’t go on these visits with the assumptions that our religious viewpoint is the best one. Such humility, however, is very difficult for two main groups in the U.S.: white Christian evangelicals on the one hand, and aggressive secularists on the other hand. You might notice that each of these groups is a dominant voice in one of the two U.S. political parties. Neither of these groups has much humility, both these groups proselytize aggressively, and both these groups want to make over the United States in their own image.
I hope you will want to be like neither of these groups. Instead, I propose that we Unitarian Universalists engage in an open-minded, and open-hearted, exploration of world religions. I propose we use the study of world religions as a way to de-center our own experience, and try to get inside the experience of other worldviews. This, I believe, will ultimately make us better world citizens; and more good world citizens will, I hope, lead to a more peaceful world.